Controlling Stress with Connection

By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard Apr 7, 2014

Leaders face tremendous pressure not only to accomplish their own goals, but to ensure their employees are high-achieving. Yet nonleaders actually experience more stress than leaders, which can affect the formers’ performance, recent research indicates.

Two studies published in the October 2012 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Business School, Stanford University and the University of California at San Diego measured stress in a sample of nonleaders in the Boston metropolitan area, as well as middle- to high-level government and military leaders participating in an executive education program at Harvard University. “Nonleaders” were defined as employees who weren’t responsible for managing others.

In the first study, the “nonleaders” showed higher levels of self-reported anxiety and of salivary cortisol, a physiological indicator of stress.

The second study looked at the effect that feeling in control has on lowering stress among the group of leaders. After determining the leaders’ number of subordinates and their authority to make decisions concerning subordinates, the researchers concluded that while having a large number of subordinates didn’t correlate to lower stress levels, having a large number of subordinates and having authority over them did lead to lower stress levels.

The good news is that leaders can help their employees to feel more in control—and less stressed—by creating a connected culture.

Culture of Connection

To create a culture of connection, you need three basic elements—vision, value and voice:

Inspire with story (vision). Bring meaning to the work by making it clear how the work benefits the organization and other employees. Effective leaders inspire nonleaders by articulating how each person on the team makes a difference.

Explain your team’s top three to five priorities and how each will contribute to achieving the organization’s mission. Sharing your top priorities reduces the stress that comes from a lack of clarity and uncertainty—conditions under which many people assume the worst.

Show you care (value). How we treat one another in the workplace matters. Wise leaders take action to help nonleaders thrive, personally and professionally, by putting them in roles that fit their strengths and providing the right degree of challenge so they are not bored or overwhelmed.

You can also show you care by encouraging and recognizing employees. If a team member is experiencing a tough time outside of work, be supportive in words and deeds. For instance, a worker whose husband is undergoing cancer treatment may need to work at home more frequently than normal. Showing empathy reduces the other person’s stress level.

Seek ideas and opinions (voice). When nonleaders share their ideas and opinions, they feel energized. In implementing employees’ suggestions, be sure to give them credit, which will further invigorate them. By seeking their feedback, you will also benefit from new knowledge and insights that may lead to better decisions.

Connection is life-giving to people and organizations; it is the antidote to stress. An abundance of connection in the workplace will produce greater productivity and even joy, which will help your team succeed.

Michael Lee Stallard is co-founder and president of the leadership training, consulting and coaching firm E Pluribus Partners in Greenwich, Conn., and the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson, 2009).

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner at E Pluribus Partners. They can be reached through the firm’s website at


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